Candyman

Album: American Beauty (1970)
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Songfacts®:

  • The American Beauty album is infused with sadness. Jerry Garcia's mother was still seriously injured and her still fate uncertain following an automotive accident, while Phil Lesh was still grieving his father's passing. The melancholic aura comes through in "Candyman" as much as any other song on the album.

    The effect of the melodic sadness on the song's context is interesting, to say the least. It makes everything about the candyman character in the song seem sympathetic, when the lyrics suggest that he is anything but. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter said he certainly didn't resonate with the character's penchant for violence (more on that below).

    The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines the term "candyman" primarily as a drug dealer and secondarily as a man who is lucky in general and lucky with women in particular. The latter version seems to fit better with the song, as the character announces his arrival to all the women in town and tells them they ought to open their windows (presumably to let him in).

    David Dodd at the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics ties the inspiration directly to the very particular candyman that appears in "Candy Man Blues" by Mississippi John Hurt, the lyrics of which would be risqué even on today's radio stations.

    Well all you ladies gather 'round
    That good sweet candy man's in town
    It's the candy man
    It's the candy man
    He likes a stick of candy just nine-inch long
    He sells as fast a hog can chew his corn


    Where the Dead's candyman differs from Hurt's candyman is that he seems out for blood as much as womanizing. He's not a nice guy, but you'd never guess that from the sweet harmonizing of the singing. The song's another outlaw ballad, like "Friend of the Devil," but the central character is noticeably more violent.

    While there's no evidence to suggest that Hunter was getting at anything too deep with the song, "Candyman" does provide an interesting perspective on the contradictions of the 1960s counterculture. Mixed in with all the peaceniks and flowers were hard-drug pushers, violent revolutionaries, and common criminals. By 1970, this stew had long since become so mixed-up that its attendant parts could no longer be cleanly extracted from each other. The fact that American Beauty came out in the midst of the Manson Family "hippie cult killings" trial says just about all that needs to be said about the complicated reality that had arisen out of the 1960s counterculture.

    Beyond all that, though, the outlaw song that romanticizes criminality is a long-held and cherished tradition in American music.
  • I come in from Memphis where I learned to talk the jive

    Jive is a once-common term for slang used by African Americans, particularly blues musicians.
  • With American Beauty, Jerry Garcia wanted the Dead to do something like "California country western," where they focused more on the singing than on the instrumentation. In one surviving rehearsal outtake, Garcia can be seen walking Bob Weir and Phil Lesh through the sound he was after.
  • Good mornin', Mr. Benson
    I see you're doin' well
    If I had me a shotgun
    I'd blow you straight to Hell


    This is an oddly violent line for a song by the Grateful Dead, who sought to embody the '60s peace-and-love ethos about as sincerely and stubbornly as any act to come out of the era. It always got a raucous applause from the audience, too, which seems equally incongruous with the Deadhead culture.

    Hunter was bothered by the cheers. In an interview published in Goin' Down the Road by Blair Jackson (p. 119), he brings this phenomenon up when asked if any of his songs has been widely misinterpreted. He mentions that he had first witnessed an audience's enthusiastic response to violence while watching the 1975 dystopian film Rollerball and "couldn't believe" the cheers.

    Hunter tells Jackson that he hopes fans know that the perspective in "Candyman" is from a character and not from himself. He stresses the same separation between himself and the womanizer in "Jack Straw."

    As far as the Mr. Benson in "Candyman," David Dodd in the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics makes a great case for that being Sheriff Benson from Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" (who may very well have been based on a real sheriff). If true, this might place "Candyman" in Houston, Texas (though Hunter might not have had anything so specific in mind).

    Hunter was a lover and a student of American folk and blues music (as well as literature), always very aware of himself being part of the long lineage of American music. It would be no surprise if he fit this reference into the song intentionally, though unconscious inspiration is always a thing.
  • The Dead first performed the song live at the University of Cincinnati's Field House on April 3, 1970. The song remained in rotation throughout the band's existence, though it was never a concert staple. In all, they performed it around 270 times.

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